By Linc Leifeste | July 22, 2011
Director: Joe Johnston
Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Samuel L. Jackson
Considering that Captain America made his initial comic book appearance in 1941, a patriotic (or propagandist) creation of those troubled and war-weary times, and that other than disappearing from comicdom’s pages for much of the 50’s and early 60’s after falling out of favor the character has been around ever since, the options for when to set this film were many. The choice was made to focus on Captain America’s World War II origins but obviously, as just about everyone knows by now, the film also is tasked with setting the stage for the title character’s upcoming appearance in the sure-to-be-a-blockbuster Avengers film (in which presumably the events will be taking place roughly 70 years later). A bit of a tall order but one that director Joe Johnston pulls off capably enough. From the inclusion of Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), future Iron Man Tony Stark’s father, to the obligatory appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), it’s clear this movie is serving as a set-up but it also stands up admirably on its own.
Opening with modern day scenes of the discovery of a crashed plane in an icy locale inside of which Captain America’s legendary shield is located, the film then jumps back to tell the story of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans). It turns out the future Captain America is a short, slight and sickly 98 pounds, too small and feeble to be able to do the one thing that he most yearns to do: enlist and go to war. The film quickly makes clear that although small in stature he’s not small in spirit, something that is conveniently picked up on by Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) in passing in the lobby of the fifth recruiting center that Rogers visits. It turns out Erskine just happens to be heading up a top-secret government program to create an army of super-soldiers to “personally escort Adolph Hitler to the gates of Hell” and he thinks he’s found the perfect candidate.
During the interview process, Rogers is asked whether he wants to kill Nazis. He hesitates, knowing that this is a question that he needs to answer correctly but finally answers honestly that he doesn’t want to kill anyone. He just doesn’t like bullies. Ultimately Rogers passes all the tests, and in a transformation worthy of the classic Charles Atlas ads that used to run in comic books, is tranformed from a scrawny victim of bullies into a muscular super-soldier capable of taking on whole armies of Nazis. Of course it turns out that the Nazis have a diabolical super-soldier of their own (at least until he turns on even them), Johann Schmidt, A.K.A. the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a campy villian who has used his occult knowledge to harness the mystical powers of a Norse relic to create super-weapons for his HYDRA minions. What’s the science behind this? Don’t ask, as in a refreshing turn even the film doesn’t really try to explain how any of it works.
Captain America is an old-fashioned adventure film that wears its heart firmly on its sleeve, part Raiders of the Lost Ark and part Star Wars (both of which the film tips its hat to), focused on an honest to goodness good guy. In this day of endless irony, satire and sarcasm this film is something of a relic, focused on a hero that is different than most to have recently made it on the big screen. Captain America lacks the dark, tortured soul of a Bruce Wayne or the accidental existence of a Hulk or Spider-Man. He’s not a carefree wealthy playboy like Tony Stark or a god like Thor. There’s not a lot of complexity, no duality. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing will greatly depend on the viewer’s taste but it worked for me. I found it refreshing to see a simple earnest story of an underdog coming out on top.
The film features solid, if not exceptional, performances all around. Chris Evans was a great choice for the lead role, able to be masculine without a trace of macho swagger and managing to muster just enough charisma without having over-the-top movie star looks. While I didn’t feel there was much chemistry and the romance angle of the story struck me as the weakest link, Hayley Atwell plays his love interest, Peggy Carter, with confidence. Tommy Lee Jones, looking older and more haggard all the time, steals every scene he’s in as Colonel Chester Phillips. And of course, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones are always welcome additions to any cast.
And as for the look of the film, I loved it. I’m generally not a big CGI fan and it’s used in abundance here but used tastefully. I’m pretty sure that we never see a competely natural Chris Evans as CGI is used to present him both as a 98-pound weakling and as the post-serum super-man but I found both presentations to be completely believable. The film pays loving attention to WW-II era detail and has a great eye for design, from the hood ornament on Red Skull’s kick-ass car to the buttons on the HYDRA soldiers’ uniforms to the retro images that run during the film’s closing credits. My one complaint involves the use of 3-D, a craze that I am eager to see come to an abrupt end. The film was in no way enhanced by the post-production addition of 3-D. If you have a choice, I suggest catching it in good old-fasioned 2-D.